February 10, 2012

Relationships. We Don’t Just Want ‘Em. We Need ‘Em.

If you place two living heart cells from different people in a Petrie dish,
they will in time find and maintain a third and common beat. – Molly Vass

The urge for connection runs so deep within us that it is cellular. We are, literally at our most basic level, designed to seek relationship with others. According to hospital chaplain, Kerry Egan, whose blog can be found on CNN.com, at the end of their lives, what people most yearn to talk about is their relationships. It is the love we share with the people who fill our lives that is our most meaningful work. According to Egan, our relationships, especially those with our family of origin, are the “crucible” within which we explore the “big spiritual questions.”

She goes on to write, “We don’t learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it. It’s not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques. It’s discovered through these actions of love. If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.” As we grow up, move out and create lives independent of our families, we continue to practice expressing our deepest, spiritual beliefs – acceptance, understanding, compassion, selflessness, unconditional love – through the relationships we form.

The relationships we form in life are an opportunity for us to be seen clearly. To be seen as we’ve always wished to be seen – as special, as valuable, as a gift. In turn, our relationships give us the chance to see others with these same, appreciative, clear eyes. Yes, our friendships sustain us, but not just by what we receive from them. It is in the act of giving, of loving, of reaching out to connect that we find the true meaning of life.

The word “yoga” is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as “to yoke” or “to connect.” The practice accesses connections on a variety of levels. Most commonly we hear about the very real, very powerful connection of body, mind and spirit that yoga helps us explore as we move and breathe on our mats. If we stretch ourselves further into the more philosophical aspects of the practice, yoga awakens our awareness of our connection to the world around us. We begin to see clearly the ripple effects of our thoughts, words and deeds. The practice often awakens a spiritual yearning, urging us to seek a deeper connection with a power higher than ourselves.

It is perhaps paradoxical that this solitary, inward-focused practice can foster tangible, intimate connections with others. There is even a Sanskrit word for these relationships – sangha. Anyone who has regularly attended a specific yoga class will recognize the special connection that springs up among the community of students and teacher. It has always surprised me how deeply relationships can root with people I only see at yoga class. After all, we only have five or ten minutes to talk to each other before or after class. But it happens. To this day, some of my most lasting friendships began (and are maintained) in a yoga classroom.

There is something about moving and breathing with one another week after week that creates a connection beyond what seems logical or even reasonable. I firmly believe these relationships are anchored at a physiological level. I remember the first time I consciously experienced this. It was in a yoga class relatively early on in my practice. The asana were beginning to feel more comfortable to me and I had started to work on my breath. It had taken me months of practice to develop the focus that allowed me to maintain regular, deep, ujjayi breathing throughout an entire class. It was hard! Sometimes it felt even more strenuous than the physical movements.

Then, one day, everything shifted. I felt the breath of the class swirl around me. I found myself supported by the rhythmic breathing of the people I was practicing with. I knew somehow that my own breathing was supporting them. This felt good. But then came a moment when I felt our breaths join together. As this happened, I felt myself slip into an entirely new rhythm – not as if I’d fallen into synch with my neighbor, but as if we’d together formed a common beat that had not existed until we connected. From that point forward, the class flowed as one. As we did, my own movements felt easy and natural. Maintaining my breath was no longer work. For a few shining minutes, our class had found our way to the connection that yoga’s very name leads us toward.

Beyond the fascinating biological fact that two living heart cells begin to beat in unison lies an even more profound lesson, perhaps the most profound lesson of all. Those two cells from two different people “find and maintain a third and common beat.” The stronger, more vivacious cell does not draw the other into its rhythm. The quieter, more malleable cell is not molding itself into a carbon copy of its Petrie-dish-mate. The two cells, together, find a wholly new rhythm. Together they create a beat that neither knew before they connected.

I can only begin to imagine how our relationships would change if we let go of our needs to be in charge, to protect ourselves, to maintain our own way of being. What if we opened our eyes and ears and heart to our loved ones the way those heart cells in the Petrie dish did? What if we simply allowed our deep (indeed, cellular) urge to connect to take over? I wonder if life in relationship like that would feel as free, easy and wonderful as that yoga class I was fortunate to be part of?

This I know: Yoga can help each of us find our way inward deeply enough that we can feel this new, common rhythm. When we live to this beat, when we love and connect this way, relationships can form (and re-form) that will carry us to the end of our lives.

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